GOVERNMENTS of three states in India (Punjab, UP and Andhra Pradesh), banned the film Aarakshan (reservation) despite the fact that the Board of Film Censors certified it as being fit for public exhibition and the Bombay High Court upheld it.
The film touches the issue of reservation of seats in educational institutions and public services for the Dalits, formerly known as untouchables and now called Scheduled Castes in officialese as well as for Other Backward Classes (OBC).
In 1990, Prime Minister V.P. Singh revived the issue in a desperate populist bid to cling to power. The country was torn apart.
Afraid to lose a chunk of its constituency, BJP leader L.K. Advani countered with the campaign of Hindutva which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
Since then reservations have become a sacred cow to some and an eyesore to others who suffer when the claims of caste prevail over those of merit. Resentment is particularly deep among students.
Aarakshan deals with the subject none too stridently. Its producer, Prakash Jha, has to his credit several films on social themes. Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone and Saif Ali Khan are its leading stars. The furore erupted when the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, P.L. Punia, raised a hue and cry, though the matter falls far out of his remit.
He called it “anti-Dalit”. The penal code precisely defines offences against groups; religious, caste or other. His charge that it was “anti-reservation” gave him away and that is the nut of the matter.
A clime of intolerance has developed over the years and it has become extremely difficult to produce films on controversial themes. Dialogues are torn out of context and emotions whipped up. The film shows two affluent businessmen say that they did not want their children to study with Dalits since they “stink” and “have no manners”. In another scene, a character compares reservations to alms, adding that Dalit children should be shining shoes rather than pursuing education.
In both cases, disapproval of the conduct is implicit in the film; as implicit, say, in a film which, documenting the campaign for their uplift, portrays the humiliations which Dalits have long suffered. The chairperson of the Censor Board Leela Samson points out that “when you show a certain situation, you must show the reality as it is”.
But this is precisely what the bigots are up against. In Bombay two ministers extracted cuts from the producer to gain political mileage. A Dalit leader also got his pound of flesh. One regrets those compromises; but it is hard to condemn the producer. He risks his labours and crores of rupees going down the drain simply because the system does not stand up to organised bigotry.
This was evident in the fate of another film, Khap. It is on ‘honour killings’ and is directed by Ajay Sinha, who is known for serious TV serials. Khap is a cluster of clans which claim common lineage and within which marriage is prohibited. The patriarch of the village heads the khap. It arrogates to itself the right to pronounce death sentences on offending lovers. The crime is then committed by the father or brothers of the couple.
Khap is not allowed to be screened in the one state where khap killings are more common, Haryana. While the courts condemn the crime, politicians are silent. Khaps help to mobilise caste-based support at the time of elections.
In 1989 the Supreme Court censured the Government of Tamil Nadu (erstwhile Madras) for citing threats by a political party to use violence as an excuse to ban a film on reservations more explicit than Aarakshan. Its remarks apply to all such situations whether they concern banning of books or films, protests outside TV stations or newspapers offices, or threats of violence to peaceful demonstrators espousing an unpopular viewpoint:
“We want to put the anguished question, what good is the protection of freedom of expression if the State does not take care to protect it? … freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would be tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation. It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.”
This right “cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people”.
In the two decades since these words were uttered intolerance has increased enormously. As it is the entire edifice of film censorship set up by the Cinematograph Act, 1952 is scandalously unconstitutional. Its flaws were exposed in 1969 by the report of the Enquiry Committee on Film Censorship headed by a former Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court, G.D. Khosla.
Among its members were Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and R.K. Narayan, while Satyajit Ray, E. Alkazi, Pahari Sanyal, Sohrab Modi, V. Shantaram, Prithviraj Kapoor and Hrishikesh Mukerjee and a host of film critics and distributors gave evidence.
The report noted that no qualifications were prescribed for censors or the members of the Examining and Revising Committees. Everyone, including members of the Appellate Tribunal, not excluding its chair, the judge, held office “at the pleasure of the Central Government;” daily wage earners all.
This, despite the Supreme Court’s order in the case of A Tale of Four Cities. Its producer K.A. Abbas challenged the censors’ cuts. The court ruled, on September 24, 1970, that an appeal should lie to an independent tribunal. Despite several amendments, the tribunal remains a body of daily wage earners.
Here is a field in which members of the film industry in Pakistan and India can share experiences and suggest reforms.
Pakistani music is a rage in India. Indian films and film stars are well known in Pakistan. Many a journal in Pakistan reviews Indian films. Pakistani and Indian film producers and actors should unite to tear down the wall that separates creative talent in both countries. They must hold a series of meetings for this cause.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.